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Alternate Title: The Call Is Coming From Inside the House
So yesterday at lunchtime I trotted out my neat little stack of periodicals to read while I munched a ham sandwich. I picked up the latest Kirkus (1 May 2016) and there I saw the Vicky Smith article: “Unmaking the White Default”. As many of you may have noticed recently, Kirkus made a significant shift in the way that they review. Normally, a children’s or YA book review will eschew mentioning the ethnicity of a human character unless that character isn’t white. The implicit message to this is that white is the default and anything that isn’t white is the exception rather than the rule. To combat this problem, Kirkus has taken to mentioning the ethnicity of all human characters, or at least making note of their skin tones. In this article, Vicky discussed the change.
When this switch was initially made, the responses were mixed. I’ve listened to the Horn Book Podcast that discussed the decision, noted the mistake in the Kirkus review of The Night Gardener (the 2016 picture book, not the Jonathan Auxier gothic middle grade), and taken an interest in the SLJ reviewers’ online course on diversity & cultural literacy (so far they have 125+ registered).
Imagine me reading all this while twiddling my thumbs. Dum de dum. Toodle-oo. Hum hum hum. Not really thinking too hard. I review for Kirkus so, like all reviewers there, I’ve been adjusting my reviews as I write them. There’s an art to it, really. Some folks have been concerned that this sort of thing just reinforces how obsessed we are over skin color. I see that, absolutely. And I look forward to the day a Kirkus editor writes an article rescinding this reviewing method because we’ve come so far as a nation that we don’t need it anymore. At the same time, I’m pretty sure the publishing industry isn’t quite there yet. Or, for that matter, the nation.
I suppose it’s because I review for Kirkus that it took me this long to come to a very personal realization. First off, do I agree with what Kirkus is doing? Actually, I do. The white default is more annoying than the old italicize-all-foreign-languages trope and hardly less bothersome than the describe-darker-skin-tones-entirely-in-terms-of-food method.
As Vicky Smith mentioned, it’s hardly a change everyone likes. I saw that one commenter on the Horn Book podcast site wrote, “Why stop at hair color, eye color, skin color, DNA? Perhaps in the digital book future, we will move toward even greater specificity. A child could be placed at the center of each book she reads, the details customized to be about herself, the most interesting subject in all the world.” A comment placing the whole debate in the context of how personalized electronic information leads to narcissistic youth sort of misses the point. There may be kids out there that only want to read books about kids of their own races, but Kirkus isn’t doing this for them. Would you find fault in a review mentioning a character’s chosen gender? As a librarian, I need to know precisely what each book I read or need to read contains. Characters are more than their ethnic backgrounds, but at the same time your race informs your life. Not everyone has the luxury of ignoring it.
So. We come to it. If I agree with Kirkus, would I apply their method of mentioning all skin tones to the reviews I write on this blog?
Hadn’t really occurred to me before.
I mean, the reviews that I write for this blog are my brand. If this blog dropped off the face of the earth tomorrow, it would be the reviews I’d really miss writing. And in the time that I’ve been writing them I’ve settled into a nice comfortable little format. Opening paragraph, description of the book, mentions of writing, mentions of art (if applicable), concerns, closing paragraph. Easy peasy. And in my time reviewing I don’t think I’ve made an active change to the format at all.
Is white the default when I review? Yes indeed.
Could I change this? Yes indeed.
Now let me be clear about a couple things right off the bat. When Kirkus first started applying this method to their reviews, it was awkward. They got the details wrong on some books and shoehorned the mentions into some of the reviews. I have a theory, and I could be completely off, that there’s been a learning curve since then. There is an elegance to how you describe a character in any review. Done correctly and with careful consideration and the mention feels natural. Done wrong and it feels almost didactic.
In the end, and when you boil it all down, this is an easy switch to make. I’m going to give it a try and see how it goes. Plus, I have a distinct advantage over Kirkus. While they must bring up racial skin tones within a scant 225 words, I have all the time in the world in my own reviews to make the mentions. In a way, bloggers are in a better position to try out this change than professional review journals.
Die, default. Die.
Those of you who follow @rogerreads might have seen my occasional cranky #authoraskyourself (#editoraskyourself, #revieweraskyourself…) tweets in which I turn whatever crime against language and/or literature that has crossed my desk that day into a blind item for an anonymous public spanking. I keep them anonymous because a) I’m not that mean, b) they’re often examples of promiscuous horrors rather than being singularly egregious, and c) I don’t want to taint any official opinion that the Horn Book might subsequently proffer in a review.
I have learned not to offer premature word on what the Horn Book might or might not say about a particular book. Years ago, a close friend published a novel that had been submitted for review. I stayed out of the discussion about whether to assign the book to a Magazine reviewer and which reviewer to send it to, but later when I heard that the reviewer and the editor loved it, I felt safe in telling my friend that the book would be recommended in an upcoming issue. Not. So. Fast. The reviewer had second thoughts and convinced the editor that the book should in fact not be reviewed. Ouch.
Wincing, I remembered this little learning experience when I saw that a Facebook acquaintance posted a sad lament that the review her new book had been “promised” by another publication several months ago had not yet appeared. While I have no way of knowing just what was promised by whom to whom, I’d advise concerned parties to neither offer nor expect a review until it’s ready to print. A Horn Book Magazine review goes through several editors and stages before we think it’s fit to print, and it changes all along the way. And sometimes it disappears–one or another of us will look askance at a book or its review, conveniently claim amnesia for the mistake of assigning it in the first place, and query our fellows as to whether to drop it from the Magazine (#Ijustdidthistoday). For a selective review source like the Magazine, the toughest decisions involve those books that are good but not great, and by those that our partners in crime at SLJ, etc., are raving about while we’re thinking, “this? THIS? Really?” The challenge posed by this latter kind is deciding whether to publicly demur or just keep quiet.
Don’t even get me started on stars.
The post Not. So. Fast. appeared first on The Horn Book.
I learned about this title when it was shortlisted for the UK Costa Award and immediately ordered it from the UK. I’ve now read it and here is what I wrote on goodreads:
I’m a fan of Nesbit’s original FIVE CHILDREN AND IT, but I’m not sure it is necessary to be familiar with it to enjoy this intriguing and elegantly crafted sequel.
Nine years after their last meeting with the Psammead (a grumpy sandfairy), he suddenly shows up in his old gravelpit. Cyril, Robert, Anthea, and Jane are now young adults, the Lamb an active eleven-year-old, and there is now one more — Edith, age nine. World War I has begun and is the center of this tale. It turns out that their old magical friend has an old history that he needs to resolve, most of all feel some sort of regret. The young people’s involvement with the war twisted around the Psammead’s not-so-pleasant behaviors of the past is moving, exciting, and sometimes sad. There are references to their earlier experiences, the nature of wishing, and how to consider the past. Beautifully written, this is a tale that I hope sees publication and promotion in the US.
Fictionalized history is a tricky business. On the one hand, the past is a wealth of fascinating material for use in creating imaginary worlds. On the other hand, those doing that creating can’t go wild, they must honor the historical truth the best they can, especially when they are writing about real people from not so long ago. And so we come to X: A Novel, a gritty and glorious rendering of Malcolm X’s youth by his daughter Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon.
Friends tell me trouble’s coming. I ease out of the restaurant onto sidewalk, gun in my pocket. Hand in there, too, keeping it close for good measure. I gotta get back to my pad, and quick now. One foot in front of the other. Keep my head down, hope no one sees me.
These first tense sentences introduce readers to the young Malcolm. It is 1945 Harlem and he is clearly in trouble. Big trouble. By the next page we know more about the trouble and more about Malcolm. He’s shrewd, clever, and at this moment very scared, rueing the direction his young life has taken. And then we are taken back to 1940 Lansing, Michigan where we see a younger Malcolm setting out on his new life. The novel goes on, fluidly moving back and forth in time, filling in elements of the young man’s history. There is family: a tragically lost father, sad mother, and supportive siblings. After a childhood of profound poverty, Malcolm leaves for the city, exploring exciting and darker places, girls, drugs — a very different world from that of his childhood. Settings are remarkably evoked, the dire poverty and horrific racism of Lansing swirling in and out amidst the jittery jazz environments of Boston and New York. Shabazz and Magoon do a remarkable job generating atmosphere, balancing family love in the face of dire circumstances against the pulsating energy of a self-assured young man swaggering through Harlem streets in a fine zoot suit and a conk. At times the language is blunt and challenging, appropriately in this fierce rendering of the youthful development of an iconic figure of America’s past.
The story of a reckless young man finding himself, X: A Novel is historical fiction at its best — an artistic exploration of a part of a renowned person’s life , one that stays true to his time and place.
After seeing some alarming comments on Read Roger and Facebook I feel the need to point out something I thought everybody knew: the Horn Book, like our sisters at SLJ, Booklist, and BCCB, does not charge authors or publishers for book reviews. Publishers Weekly and Kirkus do offer fee-based reviewing services but these are in addition to (and labelled as such) their regular reviews, which are free. Personally, I think reviews you have to pay for are a waste of money and a source of the worst kind of mischief.
People have also questioned the relationship of advertising pages and review coverage, and this is totally fair game for examination: do advertising dollars buy reviews in a quid pro quo arrangement? Absent the presence of damning emails or something, I think it would be hard to prove either way, because advertisers tend to spend their money in places that are saying nice things about their products. This is not absolute, though: I once heard our wonderful ad director Al tell a marketing director at a Big Five publisher that they should be buying more ad space because we were giving them so many good reviews. Her response? “Sure, but how many of those are starred reviews?” It’s never enough. But, no, at the Horn Book we don’t review (or star) books on the basis of who is buying advertising pages. (We do offer products such as Talks With Roger that are paid for by publishers but are clearly labelled as “sponsored content” and are separate from our review coverage.)
Something I have intuited (or outright heard) from some publishers, large and small, is that they think of reviews as part of their promotion efforts. This makes sense from their point of view, in that they use reviews for marketing purposes. But we don’t work for the publishers, we work for our readers. Smart publishers know that this is in their best interest.
The post The buck stops over there appeared first on The Horn Book.
Thank you all for your comments, here and on Twitter and Facebook, about the question of reviewing books from self-published authors. I am learning a lot. Hey Zetta Eliott–how about another article from you for our pages on this subject?
A number of commenters have suggested that the Horn Book begin a column highlighting the best of self-publishing for children, but I don’t think this does our readers much of a service. We (he said, drawing his emeralds warmly about him) are not interested in reviewing the best of a certain manner of publishing; we are only interested in the best. The Horn Book Magazine has the luxury of not being a comprehensive review source (The Horn Book Guide is that, but if I invite self- and e-publishers to add to their already heavy workload, Kitty and Katrina and Shoshana will quit), instead reviewing only those books we think are the very best for young people. As Pat Hughes, with admirable generosity, pointed out, there are plenty of great books that aren’t reviewed by the Magazine, books that get starred reviews elsewhere and even books that win a Boston Globe Horn Book Award. Sometimes it’s that we have a demurring opinion, sometimes we like a book but like other books more, and sometimes we are just wrong. This is why God gave us more than one review journal. To publish a column of “the best of self-published” is to review with an asterisk.
Here is what I want to try, as an experiment. I invite self-publishing authors to send me ONE book that he or she thinks is comparable in quality to the books recommended in The Horn Book Magazine. I strongly advise that you read a few issues to see what kind of books we like and what aspects of a book we consider in arriving at our judgments. Be forewarned that I may publicly mock any entry that provides egregious evidence of someone not having a clue; I will also tell you on this blog about the books I like.
Call it a contest, although, unlike most other contests, or, erm, review sources for self-published writers, there is no entry fee. The prize(s) will be a review written by me for the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. I RESERVE THE RIGHT NOT TO GIVE A PRIZE IF I DON’T RECEIVE A BOOK I THINK IS GOOD ENOUGH. The winner(s) and selected runners-up, if any, will also receive a year’s subscription to the Magazine. Here are the rules:
1. Send one copy of one book (either a finished copy, f&gs, or a bound galley) before 12/15/14. It must have a publication date of January 2015 onward. Include ISBN, price, distributor, and email contact for you. It must be a book intended primarily for young readers within the range of 0-18 years. Only printed books (hard- or softcover) may be submitted and they will not be returned to you. You will not be provided with an acknowledgment of receipt.
2: Mail the book to:
The Horn Book Inc.
300 The Fenway
Palace Road Building Suite P-311
Boston, MA 02115
Do not call me. Do not visit me.
3. Make sure it arrives by December 1st and is marked “Selfie Sweepstakes” on the package. Entries arriving after that date or without that marking will be discarded unread.
I don’t know or care if these rules set a high bar or not; they represent what we expect from all publishers. I am very interested to see what I get, and I will keep you posted here on Read Roger about the progress of the submissions. Please put any questions in the comments here, and feel free to distribute notice of this contest among your fellows.
The post A challenge to self-publishers appeared first on The Horn Book.
I love words and I love art that plays with words. ABC books, abecedarian novels, lipograms, everything and anything that plays with the art of words is art right up my alley. And so having adored Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s glorious Caldecott Honor A River of Words, I was agog with anticipation waiting for their latest, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus. And now that I’ve seen it, let me tell you — it was worth the wait. Bryant again captures the essence of a complicated individual in spare and beautifully crafted text. Having now written a book about a real person myself, I’m all the more in awe of anyone who takes on a full biography for children, managing to economically pull out just what is needed about that person’s life for young readers to best appreciate his accomplishments. Roget was clearly one brilliant man who loved all sorts of things, words among them. Bryan elegantly communicates Roget’s lifelong passion for word lists as well as much more. She communicates beautifully just why such lists are so worthwhile by having Roget answer his mother’s questions with a single word and then mull over what better ones there might be. She suggests the darker parts of his life, but mostly she communicates a person who was a passionate learner, passionate creator of word lists, and someone who figured out how to put those passions together to create a unique and wonderful book, the thesaurus.
Words, words, letters and numbers and then more words float through this book. In the text, through the perfect design and, most wonderfully, through Melissa Sweet’s art. These marks of language are everywhere in this book, those of Roget’s lists dance across one page, march down another, and flit throughout in magical ways. On every page, Sweet’s assemblages of paintings and collage are an exuberant delight; the realistic paintings celebrating different parts of Roget’s life are often layered one above another; here’s one with an elegant file folder border; there’s another with paper scraps of lists peeking out behind it. On every page words drift through, around and in the paintings via speech bubbles, book covers, cards, signs, maps, labels, diagrams, and more. Color and texture are used to brilliant effect, at times repeating within and without an illustration. Most of all it is Sweet’s playful use of language through her lovely realistic watercolors of Roget and his experiences, her glorious assemblages of meaning, that bring Bryan’s words, Roget’s life, and this book to an ethereal place of pleasure.
All in all, The Right Word is a
work of art.
I was on the 2008 Newbery Committee that honored Christopher Paul Curtis’s Elijah of Buxton so I was both eager and nervous to read its companion, The Madman of Piney Woods. Eager because I so admired the first book, and nervous because you just never know. Happily, I was delighted with the book and those at the Horn Book Magazine where I reviewed it agreed with me, starring it. I concluded my review (which you can read here) thus: “Woven throughout this profoundly moving yet also at times very funny novel are themes of family, friendship, community, compassion, and, fittingly, the power of words.”
I’ve been reading soprano Barbara Hendricks‘s memoir, Lifting My Voice, and it’s led me not only to a rewarding reacquaintance with her singing but to some thinking about the relationship between the artist and the critic. Hendricks spills a suspicious amount of ink over how she doesn’t pay any attention to critics (whose opinions of her highly distinctive voice have long been divided), but even if the lady doth protest too much for me to exactly believe her, her essential argument–that critics aren’t helpful to artists–is a good one:
“A review of my performance is totally useless in teaching me about myself. Reviews reveal so much more about the reviewer than they do about the artists. Until her death Miss Tourel [Hendricks's teacher, Jennie Tourel] was my most demanding critic, and since then I have had to assume that task myself. I learned during my first year as a professional singer that a review was not the right criteria to determine how well I had done my work, whether I had done what I had set out to do. I know my repertoire and I know when I have done my best work.”
Hendricks goes on to recall contradictory reviews, mean reviews, and seeing a reviewer who had really gone after her: “He was slight, had thinning hair, wore very thick glasses, and did not look like a happy person.” But all this is to miss the point. It’s not a reviewer’s job to make a singer–or a writer–a better one. We aren’t here to help you; we’re here to help inform audiences and potential audiences. (Even Hendricks graciously if barely allows that she “imagines critics serve some purpose and I do not want to do away with them.” Big of you, thanks.)
If I were a novelist I hope I wouldn’t go near reviews of my own work. What have I to gain? Stars and pans, Kipling’s impostors alike. (I guess I would hope that my agent or editor were paying attention, though, so as to strain anything that might be useful to me through a filter of helpfulness.) Must be hard to resist, though, especially in an age when reviews go flying about through social media and a “we’re all in this together” ethos pervades the field.
The post Do you read your reviews? appeared first on The Horn Book.
Barry Jonsberg’s The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee, an Australian import, is one fabulous book. I’d had the ARC for quite a while, but it took Betsy Bird’s rave review to finally get me to read it and I’m so glad I did. Twelve-year-old Candice is one of those delightful singular narrators — she is definitely different, but not in a way that can be nicely and conveniently categorized. Classmates term her SN for special needs, but there is no sense that she is being provided any special support at all. She tells her story clearly, without discomfort, with thought, and with delightful humor. Her family is struggling emotionally for many good reasons, but Candice is keeping going even as her parents are barely able to do so. Candice knows herself, she knows she is different, and is completely comfortable with that. Occasionally there is a tinge of Pollyanna in her, say when she is paired for a school project with the classmate who seems to hate her most. Candice both knows Jen detests her and thinks that they will be great friends because of the project. Does the latter prevail? Sort of and sort of not. Read the book to see.
Jonsberg’s writing is a dream. He has structured the book as a school assignment Candice is given — to write an abecedarian autobiography — one paragraph for each letter. Our girl takes it and runs with it, letting us know at the beginning that she is tossing the one paragraph rule, giving each letter a full chapter instead. She loves the dictionary and Dickens and it shows. Hers (or rather Jonsberg’s) ability to write a scene is just delightful. I dare you not to be moved by those with her parents. Or intrigued by those with Douglas Benson from Another Dimension. Then there are those passages where Candice ruminates, say about trying to get her fish to become an atheist. Or about the death of her baby sister. Or about her Rich Uncle Brian. I’m a teacher so I have to say I adored Candice’s, Miss Bamford. She just appreciates Candice and I appreciate her, pirate attire and all. (Read the book to see what that is all about.)
So go find and read this book — it is terrific.
Coda: The SLJ reviewer wrote, “This is a strong readalike for Counting by 7s (Dial, 2013) and Out of My Mind(S. & S., 2010.” I have to say this makes me very uncomfortable as it suggests there is a category of books of different, so identified because of unusual personality or severe physical differences. The girls in each of these books are each such distinctive individuals, their situations are not the same, and the writing is not the same. The idea that young readers would read all three for the same reason disturbs me — it suggests they are looking for books about kids who are not them, who are fascinated by their differences. Sure they will admire these three girls, but why throw them together this way?
Tom McNeal’s just out Far Far Away is getting some well-deserved buzz so I figured I would post my brief goodreads comments, written after reading it a few months back.
A very unique read, sort of spooky, definitely creepy as it goes on. With one notable exception, the characters are-not-quite Grimm characters, but nearly. The book is filled with Grimm tropes and you think the author is going to take you in somewhat predictable fairy-tale directions and he doesn’t. McNeal really knows how to make food sound really scrumptious and also various characters twinkly and fun until…they are not. It probably would have given me nightmares as a kid. That is, I was the sort of kid who always freaked out around clowns and there is a character in this book that reinforces just why they freaked me out. Can’t say more without spoilage.
Leila Roy, of bookshelves of doom, has an interesting piece at the Kirkus site. In it she disagrees with Kirkus's own review of The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman. "Kirkus panned it as “skippable in the extreme”;" Leila says. "I haven’t been able to stop raving about it since reading it. Kirkus found it “unrealistic,” “ludicrous” and “snooze-inducing”; I found it chilling, suspenseful, shocking and raw."
This is an example of why I like to think of talking about books as "literary conversations" instead of "reviews." We tend to think of a review as something definitive. If you only read one review publication, that publication's reviewer provides you with your last word on any book you read about there. But, then, if you you read another publication, you may get a very different last word. That's the conversation.
The star system at places like Goodreads and Amazon, which are all averaged together so you see a 3-star book, 4-star, 5-star? No conversation there. A star is just a star. Even 5 stars are just 5 stars.
Of particular interest to me in this The Waking Dark conversation: I saw that book just a few hours ago at my library! I almost took it out. At the time, I wasn't particularly taken by what I considered to be a paranormal element. But now that I've overheard this conversation about The Waking Dark, I will reconsider the next time I see it.
One of my perpetual concerns is how we help children understand the complicated interrelated ways of wildlife and people, especially when it comes to endangered animals. My longtime experience in a school is that too often animals in places where lives are significantly different from those of my students are attended to at the expense of the people. That is, I fear that they will inadvertently develop a negative view of the people native to an area where animals are in danger rather than develop a deeper understanding of the complexities of the situation. So what a delight to read Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore’s Parrots over Puerto Rico where the intertwined histories of animals and people are thoughtfully, intelligently, and beautifully presented.
To begin with there were the birds — striking green and blue parrots with the distinctive flight call, “Iguaca! Iguaca!” There were evidently hundreds of thousands of them all over Puerto Rico when people started to arrive around 500 BCE. Among them were the Taino people who hunted the parrots and kept them as pets. After Christopher Columbus’s “claiming” of the island for Spain in 1493 the island became full of Spanish settlers and a century later enslaved Africans were brought there to work the sugarcane. These new arrivals also brought new life with them: ships’ rats and honeybees that managed to get to the parrots’ nesting holes and attack their eggs. Others needed timber and so the forests where the parrots lived were cut down. And even as their homes were in peril, so were the birds themselves as people continued to hunt them and keep them as pets.
For the first half of the book, Roth and Trumbore do a splendid job providing young readers with a history of the island, intertwining the birds’ history with its human inhabitants along the way. In the second part they indicate the awareness by Puerto Ricans that the birds are almost gone and then their efforts to bring them back. The book ends with a very informative afterward with photos as well as a timeline and a list of sources. Their research appears to be impeccable.
Of course, it must be said, that what brings this book to a level I might term “awesome”are Susan L. Roth’s remarkable paper-and-fabric collages. Elegantly designed, the book’s vertical orientation allows for her spectacular double page spreads throughout, increasing the sense of the birds’ habitats and movement as well as the way humans affect them.
I can’t say much more than that this is a fantastic book — I recommend it highly.
I have always been fascinated by polar expeditions. I’ve viewed many documentaries, visited museums such as Oslo’s Fram Museum and Tromso’s Polar Museum, and read a lot. One story that has long enthralled me is that of Earnest Shackleton’s extraordinary 1914 expedition and successful attempt to get his whole crew to safety after their ship was consumed by the ice. This story has been told many times and many ways, say by Jennifer Armstrong in Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World and by the American Museum of Natural History in their exhibit years ago where they created an awesome room with the James Caird (the small boat Shackleton used) itself featuring huge images of waves on every wall and sound effects. Now it is being told anew by William Grill in his gorgeous new book, Shackleton’s Journey.
This is a large, beautifully designed and produced book from Flying Eye Books, a small newish publisher doing absolutely terrific stuff. With a unique illustrative style, Grill balances small images with massive ones to evoke vividly Shackleton’s preparations, the early days of the expedition, the closing in of the ice on the Endurance, and their subsequent efforts to survive, and travel to safety. Grill’s text and images do a fabulous job communicating this incredible story. The large size of the book, the ample use of white to evoke the snow and ice of the region, and some jaw-dropping full-page images make this a book to look at over and over.
My one reservation is the lack of documentation. There are several quotes, a glossary, and much provided to learn about Shackleton, his men, the ship, polar exploration, and so much more, but there are no citations. I would have dearly loved to have seen even a brief list of sources.
That said, the book is absolutely spectacular and worthy of owning. Kids and adults are going to pour over it and, hopefully, want to then go learn more.
Block that metaphor!
The post Moving moment No. 9 appeared first on The Horn Book.
Some of you may bristle (or already have) about this topic, but I think it is one to take very, very seriously. It is Patrick Ness‘s provocative point in his SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Book decision this week about what he has termed CBAITs:
Crappy Books About Important Things; you know exactly what I’m talking about: books with either important subject matter or important formats that are so terrible-but-worthy they turn reading into medicine for young people. People tend to be far too afraid to give these books bad reviews and they often go on to win prizes.
I think Patrick has a point, an important and enormously complicated one. First of all, what Patrick may consider a CBAIT may not be what someone else does. That is, our criteria may be different, our idea of what is good, our taste, and so forth. Which is why, presumably, some end up winning prizes. That is, enough people on a particular award jury may have the same sense of what is good even if it isn’t what others think. And so they are going to give an award to a book they sincerely think is good not crappy.
And that gets to the heart of Patrick’s issue: what do people consider to be a good book? Many indeed think a book is good if it takes on an Important Thing and will dismiss questions about the quality of sentence level writing that would be something I’d be paying attention to . While Patrick and I probably would agree that something with painfully poor sentence level writing is crappy there are some who might feel differently. Not to mention what I might consider overwrought writing might be something someone else would think is wonderful, and vice versa.
That said, I do think there is a tendency for those of us who review and/or participate in selecting best books, award books, and such to pay a lot of attention to books that deal with topics that we feel need to be more known. And sometimes we excuse weaknesses in such books because we think they are so important. Because they are so few and because we so badly want young people to take in the topics, to know about these Important Things.
I think this has special resonance when considering the Newbery award. While the criteria are clear that it is for literary merit not popularity or didactic intent, I suspect most of us can look back at the books that have received the medal and find one we’d call a CBAIT.
Thank you, Patrick, for pointing out that metaphorically children’s book award emperors sometimes have no clothes.
Mixing fairy and folktale with harsh historical reality, Preus has created a gorgeous story of migration set in 19th century Norway. So many stories of immigrants to America focus on their lives when they arrive. Here is one about the old country inspired by something Preus read in a diary her great-great-grandmother wrote as she traveled to America. Thirteen year-old narrator Asti is a complicated girl: brave, smart, difficult, angry, foolhardy, imaginative, and in the end, endearing. I dare you not to read her story and not care deeply about her. Asti and her younger sister Greta have been stuck working for their aunt and uncle on their hardscrabble farm after their father has gone off to America, promising to send for them when he has the money. The girls’ lives are harsh and miserable; the lack of any letters from their father makes it challenging to hold onto hope. But they do, Asti fiercely. But then, although it would seem to be impossible, things get worse. Asti is sold to a truly horrific goat man and this remarkable tales takes off from there. Swirling in and out of Asti’s narrative of her harsh life with the goat man, her escape, and her efforts to get to America with her Greta are the stories she tells, ones of folk, of enchantment, and of magic. Beautifully considered and written, I can’t recommend this book enough.
Deborah Wiles’ Sixties Trilogy is set in the time of hers (and my) youth. The first book, Countdown, is a vivid, compelling, and moving view of the Cuban Missile Crisis seen through the eyes of eleven-year-old Franny and was, I thought, splendid causing me to wait on tenterhooks for the next one. When I saw that the second book was coming out this year I was both elated and nervous. Could Wiles pull it off again?
Here’s my tweet after reading it:
I confess, until recently what I knew about John Brown was pretty much limited to a vague awareness of his foolhardy attack on Harper’s Ferry. Then, last summer, I read this review of James McBride’s historical novel about Brown, Good Lord Bird, listened to it, thought it terrific, and was very pleased when it won the National Book Award. And so, having Brown much more on my radar, when I first saw Albert Marrin’s nonfiction book A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery I was eager to read it. Having now done so I can say without reservations that it is excellent.
The excellently-titled A Volcano Beneath Snow is a book that is much more than a biography or history of one man. Rather, it is a book about slavery (both in history and in the United States), about politics, about war, about Lincoln, about religion, about history, about belief, and about terrorism. By placing Brown deeply within the context of his time, Marrin gives a unique and fascinating perspective on familiar and less familiar aspects of actions, people, and the ideas that led up to the Civil War. His portraits of Brown, Lincoln, and many other players are highly complicated, fascinating, and thought-provoking. While the concepts in play are not always simple, Marrin writes about them clearly and elegantly, trusting in the intelligence of his young readers. This is a book that makes you think. Hard.
Gregory Maguire’s Egg & Spoon is a rich and layered story, full of gorgeous images and sentences, a matryoshka doll sort of tale. That is, like those nested dolls that show up themselves in the story, this book involves bits and pieces of stories, one inside the other and then coming out again. We begin meeting Elana Rudina, a peasant girl starving in a village with a dead father, a dying mother, a brother taken off to serve the Tsar, and the other as a servant for the local landowner. One day, out of nowhere, a train appears containing the wealthy Ekaterina, another young girl, this one wealthy, on her way to visit the Tsar in St. Petersburg. Things take off from this point — journeys, mistaken identities, magical eggs, magical beings, mysterious monks, a prince, a magical festival, the Tsar, and — most wonderful of all, Baba Yaga and her house on chicken feet. This fabulous witch of Russian folklore is a fabulously written character, funny, scary, wry, and just about everything possible in Maguire’s capable hands. At moments she reminded me of some of Diane Wynne Jones’ similarly gorgeously cranky and wonderful characters.
The plot is unique and complex, swirling around in highly unusual directions. It is staying with me and the more I mull it over the more I love it. Kids who are able and flexible readers, those with a predilection for older books of complexity and rich language and the ability to go with it wherever it goes will love it too I think. The child characters are delightful, brave and smart and complicated. And those magical characters — wow. This made me think of so many classical books I have loved over the years. Fairy tales galore, Russian and Scandinavian, especially, but other tales too — at one moment I thought of a favorite of my childhood, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. A unique and wonderful read.
I read Val McDermid’s reinvisioning of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey a while ago, courtesy of one of the egalley sites, and very much enjoyed it. This surprised me because Austen’s original is perhaps my least favorite of her novels, but McDermid pulls this new version off glowingly.
First of all, a well-known writer of adult crime fiction, McDermid does an excellent job with her sentence-level writing — that light wit and cleverness of Austen is nicely channelled. Having read a number of mediocre attempts to update Austen, this mattered to me enormously. And then, she plays most amusingly with the recent obsession so many young woman had with the Twilight novels, a clever updating of Austen’s original heroine’s obsession with gothic romances. Finally, she uses Edinburgh during the Book Festival as stand-in for the original’s Bath. Last summer, I was there for the first time and fell in love with the city and event. And so I can say for sure that McDermid does a lovely job capturing the sensibility of that time and location.
Now I’m delighted to see that Jo Baker, whose own Austen reinvisioning, Longbourn, was rightly celebrated last year (my review here), has enthusiastically reviewed this title for the New York Times. She concludes:
Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” was in part a playful response to what she considered “unnatural” in the novels of her day: Instead of perfect heroes, heroines and villains, she offers flawed, rounded characters who behave naturally and not just according to the demands of the plot. So while everything in Austen is made up, nothing is ever a lie. McDermid’s writing has a similar honesty: She doesn’t let easy clichés or stereotypes slip by. In her crime fiction, the situations may be extreme, but her characters are human. This is also true of her “Northanger Abbey.” It may be an adaptation of someone else’s novel, which itself is woven with references to other, earlier books, but nothing feels forced, nothing feels untrue. McDermid makes it very much her own, although any skeletons in the cupboards remain strictly metaphorical.
I love me a good caper story. Lighter, smarter, funnier, and a lot less gory than many other sorts of crime fiction, done well, they are great fun to read. And when a heist is involved, ideally in some exotic locale, all the better. I’m not an expert by any means, but my favorite of these sorts of stories involve some sort of initiating event and then a super cool and super smart individual assembling and leading a motley crew to steal something from someone who doesn’t deserve to have it in the first place. Say the movies, “How to Steal a Million” or “Ocean’s Eleven.” Now along comes Jude Watson‘s Loot: How to Steal a Fortune. Her name may not be terribly familiar to you, but what she’s written probably is, say a bunch of the 39 Clues books and many (many) Star War titles. But what caused me to snap up and read this title was when I learned that Jude Watson happens to also be Judy Blundell who wrote the fabulous National Book Award winner What I Saw and How I Lied.
It starts out darkly with a job gone very, very wrong. We meet the teen-ager March McQuinn, who has spent his whole life traveling around with his father, helping him with his cons and heists, mostly homeschooled in a desultory way. Now Alfie McQuinn has fallen off an Amsterdam roof and March is sitting next to him listening to his dying words, “Find jewels.” The moonstones, the grieving March assumes, seven otherworldly gems that are the central objects of desire in this novel. But it turns out that his father means something else entirely. It seems March has a twin sister named Jules from whom he has been separated his whole life. She, like March, has had an unconventional upbringing and is equally savvy in the murky world of con artists and thieves. The two soon meet and end up in a dreary American foster home. There they join forces with two other smart young people and head off to solve the mystery of their father’s death, get those moonstones, and do a whole lot more that is far too complicated to describe in brief, not to mention potentially spoiling if I do. What I can say is that it is loads of fun.
As in the best caper and heist stories, this one is full of snappy dialog, razor-sharp sentences, and clever plotting. The baddies are deliciously nasty and deserve what they get, the kids are endearing, and all in all it is a great edge-of-your seat read.
The recent attention being paid to the many young undocumented immigrants coming across our country’s southern border brings to mind the remarkable book, Migrant by José Manuel Mateo’s and illustrated by Javier Martínez Pedro. This story of one young boy’s difficult migration from Mexico to the United States is one spectacular book. Beginning in a rural village, readers learn why the young boy’s mother makes the difficult decision to leave. Their father has already left and, when he stops sending money and she cannot find work locally, she decides to leave with her two children, the narrator and his sister. The rest of the story is of their hard and frightening journey as they make way to Los Angeles. What really makes the book stand-out is that the poignant words are illustrated by one huge piece of art. Inspired by the codices the early people of Mexico and Central America, the intricate black and white art is viewed in an accordion format, something you fold it out as you read the story of the family’s journey. You can get a sense of this and the art itself at Jules’ featured post about it here. Highly, highly recommended.
I love fairy tale reworkings. At the same time their popularity of late has resulted in a lot of mediocre ones and so when I come across one I’m both excited and wary. Is it going to be a goofy-movie-Shrek-imitating-like thing or more in the vein of Michael Buckley’s Fairy Tale Detectives, Christopher Healy’s Hero’s Guides, or Adam Gidwitz’s Grimm series? And if YA dark is it going to be lame bodice-ripper or something with heft, like Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away? And so seeing a description of Katherine Coville’s debut novel The Cottage in the Woods on Edelweiss, I requested it on a whim and began reading it with very low expectations. And so what a lovely surprise when it turned out to be completely engrossing, a book I read steadily until I was done. In other words, reader, I liked it very much.
The story is a unique melding of a Regency Romance/Victorian Gothic set within a fairy tale world. Our heroine and narrator is Ursula Brown, a very proper young bear who has come to the Cottage in the Woods, the wealthy Vaughn family’s estate near Bremen Town, as their young boy’s governess. The three Vaughn bears live an elegant and refined life and Ursula slips into it without much difficulty, tolerating Mr. Vaughn’s stern admonitions, appreciating Mrs. Vaughn’s kind gestures, and falling very much in love with her sweet young charge, Teddy. But life in the area is not easy. The Enchanted — those animals who talk, dress, and act as humans do — are struggling with envy, prejudice, racial hostility, and out-and-out vigilantism from some of their human neighbors.
The publisher indicates that this is a reworking of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” It is indeed, but I don’t wish to give away just how. I will say that I found it an enormously clever rethinking of that particular story, very much in keeping with the literary tradition Coville is working in, that of the Victorian novel. I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of them these days and so I was very impressed with how well Coville used those tropes in her story. Ursula is very introspective, the various Enchanteds in her world are as proper and polite as anyone in an Austen, Bronte, Eliot, or Trollope novel. There is plenty of drama here, but not the swashbuckling sort of some of the other fairy tale workings. And while somber on occasion it isn’t as dark as some of the YA ones around.
There are so many clever fairy tale/nursery rhyme touches that also allude to the Victorian novel tradtion. For instance, Teddy’s nurse is an illiterate tippling badger who is quite jealous of our heroine and an amusing contrast to the cozy cute ones of Potter and others. Best of all is the Goldilock’s plot thread — it is a brilliant rethinking of the story within a classic Victorian Gothic setting. And I love the representation of the doctor who comes to examine her at one point with his Freud-like Viennese accent.
So keep an eye out for this one. I can’t wait to see what others make of it.
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Who doesn’t enjoy a well-drawn curmudgeon? Children’s books are rife with them. From dour Eeyore moping about the Hundred Acre Wood to the irritable Mary Poppins, they come in all shapes and species. Proudly singular, such cantankerous characters are invariably exasperating, endearing and entertaining all at the same time. And now along comes Jennifer L. Holm with a doozy. Best known for her works of historical fiction, three of which have won Newbery Honors (“Our Only May Amelia,” “Penny From Heaven,” “Turtle in Paradise”), and the graphic novel series “Babymouse,” Holm uses a surprising twist to bring us a particularly memorable grouch in her latest, “The Fourteenth Goldfish.”
That’s the beginning of my very enthusiastic review of The Fourteenth Goldfish in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. Read the rest of it here.